He was a member of the Virginia aristocracy, the son of an acclaimed Revolutionary War cavalry commander—Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—and he had served with distinction in the prewar United States Army, rising to the rank of colonel. In the view of many, both Northern and Southern, he was also a military genius. “His name might be Audacity,” observed a fellow officer. “He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South. . . . ”
Tall, gray-bearded and dignified, he was a quietly devout Christian. “I am nothing but a poor sinner,” he once said, “trusting in Christ alone for my salvation. . . . ” He was also an ardent admirer of George Washington. Lee’s wife, Mary Anne Custis Lee, was the daughter of Washington’s adopted son, and Lee’s father had been Washington’s wartime subordinate and postwar friend. With such ties to the nation, Lee had come with regret and reluctance to Southern command.
He considered slavery to be a “moral & political evil” and described secession as a “calamity,” but on the eve of the war he declined an offer to command the principal Northern army. Instead, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and returned to his family home on the Virginia side of the Potomac opposite Washington, D.C. “I shall return to my native state,” he asserted, “and share the miseries of my people. . . . .” When Virginia seceded, he agreed to accept command of the state’s troops, and when Virginia joined the Confederacy, he became a Confederate general. He held various posts during the first year of the war, eventually serving as the chief military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
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